The first showing of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House (IMDB link) last night at the Castro Theater was almost completely full, and there was another long line forming for the second show. Before the movie started, the MC asked who in the audience had never seen the movie before, and almost everyone raised his hand. What I find baffling — apart from every single thing shown in this movie — is why the movie isn’t more well-known in the US. Because it is almost unrelentingly awesome.
I first heard about it from my friend Rain, who learned about it from this post on the fourfour blog. (Incidentally, although you may look at that fourfour post and be concerned that it gives away everything in the movie, rest assured that it barely scratches the surface. There’s plenty more weird where that came from). The movie’s seeing re-release thanks to a new run of screenings (with new translations) from Janus Films, along with a cool new poster and T-shirt. I desperately hope this means a Criterion edition — or at least a DVD release of some sort — is on the way. Partly because I want to watch it again, partly because I want to just take any random still and use it as my desktop background, but mostly so that I can have physical evidence that the movie does indeed exist. (I just noticed from the Wikipedia entry that a DVD was/is going to be released in 2010, but I haven’t been able to find it online yet).
That Janus site describes it as “an episode of Scooby Doo as directed by Dario Argento.” And that, as they concede, is only a small part of it. I’d say it’s like Scooby-Doo as reinterpreted by Sid & Marty Krofft, combined with obakemono, Dynamite! magazine, old ads for The Gap from the 70s, Sukeban Deka, Kwaidan, the French New Wave, Head, Abbott & Costello, and a Cinemax movie airing at 2 AM. And then described by an 11-year-old Japanese girl and dutifully filmed by her father based on her notes.
It tells the story of seven Japanese school girls — Gorgeous, Fantasy, Kung Fu (my favorite), Mac, Melody, Sweet, and Prof — who spend their summer vacation at the creepy old house of Gorgeous’ creepy old aunt. But of course, the house turns out to be — gulp! — haunted!
Even that description doesn’t really help, though, because it ignores the thirty minutes of gloriously bizarre screen time spent building up to the house. Obayashi’s directorial mandate on this movie seems to have been “Sure, why not?” since he throws every possible gimmick on the screen in rapid succession, often layered on top of each other. Animated overlays, mattes, freeze frames, stop-motion animation, weird screen transitions, bizarre cuts, and that’s just the stuff that was done in post-production.
Any one of the wacky elements would’ve made me love this movie — take, for instance, the way Gorgeous’ step-mother’s blouse and scarf are constantly billowing in a breeze that affects no one else — but there are literally hundreds of them in this movie. And while I wouldn’t go so far to say that it “resonates,” exactly, I will say that it never gets overwhelming or collapses under the weight of its own goofiness. The last twenty minutes or so do get a little tedious, but that’s just because the movie has to progress towards its conclusion, settling down to the relative calm of having two school girls stranded on tatami mats floating in a sea of blood spewed by a picture of a demonic cat.
The entire movie is just gloriously imaginative and weird and fun without being too self-aware: Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris is a perfect example of Japanese folklore-inspired horror/comedy done not as well. It doesn’t have a fraction of the go-for-broke wackiness that House has. And the moments of inspiration it does have are ruined by too much winking at the camera; it doesn’t feel as fun or as genuine.
If you see the eventual DVD release of House, don’t hesitate to pick it up. And if there’s a screening in your area, don’t hesitate to go see it. It’s a lot more fun with the collective bewilderment of a big crowd seeing it for the first time.